African American Housekeepers and Maids 1800 – 1900: Why I Paint Mammy Art

“I collect Black Memorabilia and I love Aunt Jemima.”

Maxine Waters

I decided to create a collection of Mammy art and write this Blog after two experiences.

First, I became re-acquainted with the book “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” by Brian Lanker.  Upon reading the book a second time, almost 30 years later, I discovered that there was information about the lives of the women that I had not read with patience.

For instance, While I had read about the life of  the Honorable Maxine Waters, and knew that she is a  United States Representative of California’s 43 Congressional Districts, and formerly the 35th and 29th districts,” In considering her professional accomplishments, I did not give much attention to the fact that she collects black memorabilia.  She is quoted as saying “I Love Aunt Jemima,” and her explanation as to why resonated with me.  (Lanker 71.)


 Art In Memory of Women Lynched in America

While I too grew to love black memorabilia, for many years, I was much of what I was exposed to embarrassed me, and I was not brave enough to admit that there were some pieces of black memorabilia that I did like.

I have the utmost respect for black women, and I thought that if I liked or collected black memorabilia, such as mammy art, that in doing so, I would have been disrespecting myself and other black women.

The first time that I saw a piece of art in the form of a mammy, I was a teenager and I was ashamed of what I saw.

The art was in the form of a cookie jar that displayed an exaggerated face of a black woman wearing an apron and a scarf tied around her head.

She had thick lips and a big grin on her face.  I viewed it as a insult to black women, however, as I have matured, I realized that while the features of black women might be exaggerated, if you were to look at most black women, we have beautiful faces that reflect happiness inside.  We naturally have beautiful full lips, lips that many women pay a lot of money to acquire the same fullness.

The second thing that happened was that I recently experienced the art of Kara Walker’s amazing creation, “A Subtlety.”

I was empowered by Kara’s boldness to create her art authentically and unapologetically.  She had done her research on the history of sugar production in the United States and the Caribbean and she got it right. It was amazing how she incorporated all that history into a brilliant work of art that need only our visual senses to convey .

“A Subtlety will no doubt be one of history’s greatest artistic creations of all times.

My perspective of Mammy has changed since I saw the mammy in the form of a cookie jar at the City Market in Charleston South Carolina, many years ago.

I actually like some of the depictions of Mammy, even the ones some might view as offensive.

I like them because I grew up in the South, where people in South Carolina, and especially people in Charleston are a mixture of among other things, Native American, African, Caribbean, and European.

Some of their faces have profound features.  Features that some races of people might see as comical, but I see as artistic.

I love experiencing art, including photography, that depicts black women caring for children regardless of the race of the child. It shows our love, patience and humanity.

When I see a woman caring for a child, especially a black woman, it reminds me of the close relationship I shared with my mother. Her love for me was always present through her care of sheltering, clothing, and providing food me.

In spite of how black women are portrayed in art, I know our true character and strengths.

Many black women not only took care of their own children and kept their homes in tact, but they also mentored their nieces and cousins children’s as well as through working jobs that were psychologically draining, and required stamina, they took care of the homes and children of white families as well.

They did so first by force under the institution of slavery, and then as their employee, often for minimal wages.

I appreciate black women because I was born in 1956, a time when black women forced to live under segregated laws, and worked jobs in spite of the limited opportunities afforded them, to provide for their families.

I love History and I love black and white pictures like the ones shown in this Blog. Not only do the pictures remind me of the love I felt being mothered by my mother, but they remind me also of the many women who were not my mother, who protected and cared for me when I was out of my mother’s reach.  This was especially true of my teachers.

Women in my neighborhood on Jackson Street, and Huger Street, at times fed me meals at their kitchen tables right along with their children. While at there homes and mine, I was expected to watch my manners, wash my hands, wait to be served, say grace and help clear the table and wash the dishes.

Women, who were affectionately acquainted with my mother, left me with lifelong impressions of how to be a mother, a mentor, a neighbor and a friend.

My paternal mother lived in the City of Charleston, and was a tenant in Mr. Danny’s house (Daniel Labitude), on Jackson Street, shown here.

I was brought to this house right after my birth at McClennan- Banks Hospital.

DSC00601 (3)

199 Jackson Street Charleston, South Carolina

When my mother left her children in 1956, we moved next door to live with my Grand Aunt, Josephine Wilson.  She was the woman I grew up calling mamma, because she raised me from an infant of 6 months old, until I was legally an adult.

My mother, Thelma, left us to travel to New York City, where she worked as  live-in for a white family.

When the white children outgrew their clothing, they were given to my mother and she sent them to us.  The clothing were of good quality and we were happy to receive them.

My mother did not raise me, but I know that she loved me, and wanted the best for all three of the children she left behind. As a child I did not understand that, but as a mother and grandmother, I do, and I love and respect her for placing us where she thought we would be safe and well cared for.

DSC00594 (2)

 197 Jackson Street Charleston, South Carolina

Black Women Who Cared For White Children

These pictures of women who cared for children are not family members.  They were retrieved from digital prints archived by the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

[Two children with an African American woman]   Library of Congress

An African American Woman with two white Children

Ada Peters Brown, aged 7 months - less 3 days

Library of Congress

This photograph does not mention the woman holding Ada.

Mary Allen Watson, 15, June, 1866

Library of Congress

Mary Ellen Watson 15, June, 1866

[Full-length portrait of an African American woman seated holding an African American infant]

Library of Congress

African American Woman holding an African American Child 1860 – 1870

Jemmie(?) ; Mr. Brant for Hythe

Library of Congress

Jemmie?….(?); Mr. Brant for Hythe

1808 – 1816

The women shown in these pictures would be considered by some as mammy’s.

What I see in the pictures are well dressed attractive women who cared for a child so that they could provide for their own.

The many women who mentored me as a child did not look like Barbie dolls, nor Jim Crow exaggerated faces of black women. (That is why the cookie jar mammy was so offensive at first.)

They were healthy women with full bodies, and round beautiful faces.  They had big smiles, a sparkle in their eyes, and lots of love in their hearts for me.

Many wore scarfs when they worked, but on Sunday, they wore beautiful hats over their neatly sculptured hair to church that matched their fancy dresses, high heels, and matching handbags and gloves.

Many wore red lipstick on their lips. To this day, I love red lipstick!  As mentioned however, when they were at home and especially cooking in the kitchen, they wore scarves on their heads which they did for practical reasons.

Black Women In Stylish Hats

Josephine Wilson was born in 1900. The hats and styles below reflect styles from her childhood.

[African American woman, three-quarter length portrait, facing slightly right, wearing hat]

Library of Congress

Du Bois, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868 – 1963, Collection

Date Created 1899 -1900

[African American woman, half-length portrait, wearing hat, facing front]

Library of Congress

Du Bois, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868 – 1963, Collection

Date Created 1899 -1900

[African American woman, head-and-shoulders portrait, wearing hat, facing right]

Library of Congress

Du Bois, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868 – 1963, Collection

Date Created 1899 -1900

[African American woman, head-and-shoulders portrait, wearing hat, facing slightly right]

Library of Congress

Du Bois, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868 – 1963, Collection

Date Created 1899 -1900

Practical Reasons for Wearing Head Scarfs

While not all women tied their heads before cooking, it made sense to do so. Tying a scarf around the head kept hair from falling into the pot.

Mama tied my head the night before Easter to keep my Shirley Temples in place and looking good until I performed my Easter Speech on Easter Sunday afternoon.

[Portraits of two native women, one black and one light-skinned, Jamaica]

Library of Congress

“Portraits of Two Native Women, one Black and one Light-Skinned, Jamaica.”

Artist, William Berryman

1808  and 1816

It was not one that we sported as Jacqueline Kennedy, did to keep the wind from blowing her hair out of place, or like the pretty silk scarves we wore only with our church and street clothes, to keep the wind out of our ear canals .


I am talking about a scarf that had been used to tie my hair and my sisters hair so many times that it was saturated in Royal Crown, Blue Bergamot, or Peach Pomade hair grease.

My favorite scarf was green, gold, brown and white.  It had a beautiful peacock on it, and whenever their was not enough scarves for each girl to have one, we tied a piece of a rag around our head that was folded into the shape of a triangle, tied and knotted in the front, and used like a stocking cap to protect our hairdo’s.

Wearing a scarf tied around my head was a routine occurrence that little girls and women in my family did for practical reasons.

I never thought of being subservient.  We were not in the service of anyone but ourselves, cooking and cleaning and keeping dust out of our hairdo’s while taking care of our home.

When I see a black woman with a scarf tied around their head’s I know that there is either a good looking hair style sitting underneath it that she is protecting, (like a hen protects her nest of eggs), or she tied her head because she is having a bad hair day.

La Duchesse

Library of Congress

La Duchess

Jamaican Woman Seated In Doorway Kerchief over hair 1808 – 1816

Digging corn holes. La Duchesse [woman seated in window]

Library of Congress

Digging  Corn Holes Woman Seated In Window

Berryman, William Artist

1808 and 1815

Fishpot of split bamboo, in foreground at Brailsford's, [Jamaica]

When I started drawing and painting, I created pieces of art that depicted my rendition of the face of a mammy.

I debated if the faces on the art that I create looked exaggerated like the face painted on the cookie jar that I saw in the City Market when I was a teenager.  It embarrassed and offended me until I began a collection of art.

When I began to create art, I realized that it was not the art that offended me.  The art actually provoked feelings within me that forced me to come to terms with how I felt about images that stereotype black women.  Once I became comfortable with how I felt about the way I, as a black woman looked, it did not matter what I looked like in the eyes of others.

As the video above shows, there are many images of black people in many different forms that could be considered offensive, including the art that I paint.

My mother used to say that when people make fun of you, it was because there was something about you that made them feel threatened by your presence.

A Child for instance who is an A+ student might be bullied by a child that is not as academically inclined to earn at the same speed.

I have often wondered what is it about black women that make them targets of ridicule in this country.

Dr. Maya Angelou answered that question for me a long time ago, and at a time in my life when I was trying to understand my relevance as a black woman in this country.

Dr. Maya Angelou

Super Soul Sunday

I now feel free mentally to embrace all creations of art that is brought forth through me, and to be proud of those creations,  even if it incites controversy.

Whenever I sit down to paint, the end result is never exactly what I intended to create.  Most of the time, I feel that the creations came from a source other than me; and, a source that came through me to offer something to the world that is not of my experience, and not images that I would not have thought to paint.

I feel that way more and more as I challenge myself to paint art to honor the memory of women lynched in America.

I realize that there are many artist out there that can paint me into a corner, but what I no longer do is critique my art.  Instead, I just allow it to come forth because what is special about my art is not the pictures that I create.

What is special is the story of the woman for whom the art is created.  I only discovered my talent for creating art in 2011.  Prior to that I had drawn and painted a few pieces of art, but I never considered myself an artist.

Many women were lynched in America because of the way they were viewed by society, and the mob of white men who lynched them.  Images of them as a pickaninny, whatever that is, an animated versions of the fictional character, mammy.


It was at the Charleston City Market that I first saw a piece of mammy art.  It was sold among other southern memorabilia for tourists to purchase, including Confederate flag mugs and T-shirts.

While the history of Charleston is diverse and relevant to the building of this nation, it is also a history soaked in the blood of people with black skin, and of African ancestry, who were exploited and forced into slavery.


Now when I see a “mammy” in any form, all I see is the creation of someone’s expression of art inspired by a fictional character of their imagination.

It has nothing to do with who I am as a black woman, and because I want to be able to express myself freely through words and through my art, I know that I must respect that others deserve the same right.

I do not have to like what they create, and I can offer a strong response to what I see if I disagree with how blacks are represented, As I do in the case of racist representations of our First Lady, Mrs. Michelle Obama, however, in spite of my personal feelings about the art created by others, everyone deserves the right to express themselves through their art. I cannot deny others without jeopardizing my own right to “freedom of expression.”,q=mammy,c=Vintage_Collectibles_Mammy

 The On Going Propaganda and Black Women

There has always been propaganda centered around black women, her sexuality, and her womanhood.  At the same time, white men, who brought Africans to this country by force to work as free laborers desired the bodies of African women in spite of labeling her inhumane, or a beasts.

Southern Planters who considered themselves Christians took by force the bodies of their slaves and often in preference to being intimate with white women and even their own white wives.  10/11/14

Many whites found it difficult to believe that white men, who lynched black men whom they accused of raping white women, would choose to not only be intimate with black women, but fell in love with and married black woman.

“Unlike other Southern states, South Carolina did not prohibit interracial marriage until after the Civil War and “in Charleston, there were occasional marriages between mulattoes and well regarded whites.”      Walter J. Fraser, Jr., Charleston! Charleston!:The History of a Southern City, 199, 200.  10/9/14

Philanthropic Consolations, after the loss of the Slave-Bill

Library of Congress

“Philanthropic Consolidations after the loss of the Slave Bill”


A different perspective.

Stereotyping black women by projecting them as cartoon characters has been a popular method of racial propaganda, and  it appears from the cartoon below that all women are fair game.

It does not matter how beautiful or how brilliant you are, the amount of degrees earned, or if they were earned at an Ivy League school.

And, in the case of First Lady Mrs. Michelle Obama, even if the woman who earned the degrees became the First Lady of the United States of America, many in society sees her as not enough.

It appears that what still matters more than anything else is skin color.   Physical features, particularly the texture of a black woman’s hair has been under scrutiny since African woman were brought to this country as slaves.

Racist propaganda however does not define who black women are, and it certainly can not define our First Lady.She is so amazing that she is undefinable.

I appreciate women like Representative Maxine Waters for reminding me of that fact.

When I read that she collects black memorabilia,  I thought of the mammy cookie jar and how seeing it was so humiliating to me that I was embarrassed to even stand in the same space with it.

Reading that Maxine Waters collects black memorabilia somehow was like a testimony that people stand up in church and give.

Hearing the confessions of others always liberated me and strengthen my faith.

I have started to paint a collection of black Mammy’s for myself and it is because I feel less shame in doing so knowing that Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg, and Congressman Waters all collect black memorabilia.

“I collect black memorabilia and I love Aunt Jemima.  I do.  No matter how they try to depict her as being fat, black, and ugly, with big lips and all of that, she symbolizes for me, what has held us in good stead all of these years. ”

One hundred and fifteen years have failed to dim the keen eyesight of [Mammy Prater] this ex-slave

“One hundred and fifteen years have failed to dim the keen sight of Mammy Prater, this ex-slave.   Library of Congress

Ole Mammy in Beauty Land

 Ole Mammy in Beauty Land

Library of Congress

“Older black women have always been so helpful.  I think that if this world is ever going to change, they will change it.

“I wasn’t in the cotton fields, but I’ve been on a job where I was working in a factory, and I had two little kids and I didn’t have much money.  And sometimes I had to walk from the factory downtown, home.” (Maxine Waters 36)

“I had older  women not only kept my children for me but also cooked dinner so I could eat.  That wasn’t their job.  I could barely pay them for it.  I could barely pay them to keep the kids.  How could you not love that?”

Lanker, Brian Forward by Maya Angelou, “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989, 36.

Photograph  Library of Congress

Washington, D.C. Negro maid in the home of a government worker

Negro Maid in the Home of a Government Worker July 1941

Library of Congress

San Augustine, Texas. Mrs. Ramsey, a lawyer's wife, with her maid in the kitchen

St. Augustine, Texas Mrs. Ramsey, a lawyers wife with her maid in the kitchen

Library of Congress

San Augustine, Texas. The daughter of Mr. Ramsey, the city attorney, with the family's maid

The Daughter of Mrs. Ramsey with the Family Maid

Library of Congress

The face of Kenyan model Ajuma Nasenyana is a perfect example.  Her face and body is a beautifully sculptured piece of art.

Black is beautiful and black women have beautiful full lips that wear red lipstick well.  The faces and bodies of black women are a beautiful artistic expression of who we are.  We were uniquely and individually sculptured by God.

Written by Terri Mae Owens


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